Our Town turned on its head." That's how director Paul Noble describes The Laramie Project, a docudrama about the murder of Matthew Shepard now in the midst of its two-weekend run at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
In 1998, Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was brutally beaten, lashed to a fence off a rural road, and left for dead by two local high school dropouts he'd struck up a conversation with at a bar. Both were convicted of Shepard's murder and are serving life sentences.
From about a month after Shepard's death through the end of the trial, Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York City-based theater company, traveled back and forth to Laramie to conduct over 200 interviews with residents. They turned the interviews, along with court transcripts and their own journal entries, into The Laramie Project. With minimalist staging, actors take multiple roles?#34;at OPRF, 13 actors play 65 characters?#34;and examine the horrific hate crime through its effect on the town where it took place.
Noble, who teaches English and acting at OPRF and also directs at least one play a year, had his eye on doing the The Laramie Project for a while, but had to wait when Open Door Repertory Company beat him to the rights a few seasons ago. (They considered doing a joint production, but Open Door's evening rehearsal schedule wasn't workable for high school kids). But the timing, says Noble, couldn't have worked out better.
"It's so topical now, with the fear of gay marriage we saw at the ballot box. It's even more important than I knew when I decided to do it," he explains.
Work on the play began in mid-October. Noble admits it's tempting to look for kids involved in an issue when doing a political play like this, but he resisted the impulse. "I cast the best kids. The best way to serve the play is to use good actors. We've spent a lot of time talking about why the play is important, but I have no idea of the investment of these kids in the issue," he says.
It's a difficult play to perform. "I play one of the guys who killed Matthew Shepard and also two different gay people," explains junior Alex Meyer. "You have to shift so fast. It's crazy and really cool and allows actors to explore so much."
Issues of sexual orientation, violence and class can be pretty heady stuff for high school kids, but Noble felt OPRF students were ready to tackle the play, and to learn from it. Last spring, about 425 students and a handful of faculty (including Noble) participated in the Day of Silence protest. "We were silent all day while at school to honor people who had been silenced because of their gender orientation. Far more kids than we'd ever had participated?#34;about one out of seven. It was so moving; kids of all kinds joined in," he recalls.
That's not the whole story, though. "There's a lot of gay intolerance among the kids," says Noble, who finds himself often challenging students who say the word "gay" to mean something negative, or use what he calls "the three-letter 'f' word" as an insult.
And if you see the play only as an indictment of the citizens of Laramie, you're missing the point, observes Noble. "On the issues of tolerance and discrimination, you first have to 'fess up to your own issues. I hope the people in Oak Park will cop to their own level of intolerance, whatever it might be. We have to consider our own language and the extent to which we teach narrow-mindedness to our kids."
The cast members get it, Noble adds. They chose a line from the play, "We are like this," for the show's T-shirts.
"People get caught up in the idea that Oak Park is so tolerant," notes Meyer. "It's not as good as you think. And it always could be better."
Doing The Laramie Project has caused some fuss at other high schools, but Noble doesn't expect any trouble here. One cast member, who asked that her name not be used, has had to face some opposition at home, however.
"This is a hard topic to deal with, and my dad has not been supportive," she says. "Originally he said he wouldn't come to see me. At this point, I think my mom is making him come."
Senior Natalie Breitmeyer was attracted to the project because she's never played multiple characters before?#34;she's taking on seven here?#34;but "I also feel strongly about equal rights for everybody," she says. "I'm afraid of what will happen to gay marriage, and I want people to know what hate will do."
"The content of this is very moving," adds Meyer. "I'm excited to see people's reactions, and I think it will be really important to talk to people after. I hope people come to learn."
? The Laramie Project will be performed in the Little Theatre at Oak Park and River Forest High School, 201 N. Scoville Ave., tomorrow, Dec. 9, at 4 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, Dec. 10 and 11, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $3 for students and $6 for adults. After Thursday's performance, members of A Place for All, the gay/straight alliance at the high school, will lead a discussion. Call the ticket line at 434-3090.